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Co-Survivors: Caring for You and Your Loved One

By Wendy A. Myers, MSW, LCSW
Director of Counseling-Cancer Caring Center
Owner/Licensed Clinical Social Worker-Find Your Balance, LLC
[email protected]

If you are helping a loved one get through cancer treatment you are both a co-survivor and a caregiver. Co-survivors can be an adult, teen or child family member as well as a friend or co-worker. These co-survivors, as well as the survivor, can have multiple caregiving roles such as caring for children or elderly parents as well as the survivor/co-survivor. It is natural to feel as if you would like to help those individuals that you care about. “Giving Care” means helping with daily needs, helping loved ones cope with feelings and just being present to listen.

While giving care, it is necessary to at times put your own needs and feelings aside as the co-survivor. But putting your needs aside for a long period of time is not good for your health. You need to take care of you too! If you don’t you may not be able to sustain the marathon of caring for someone through a cancer diagnosis. A simple example is given when you are flying in an airplane and the stewardess instructs you to FIRST put on your own oxygen mask and THEN the others that need help around you.

The cancer journey is like a roller coaster, each family seeking to navigate through four areas: Fear/Anxiety/Worry-with support leads to establishing- Courage
Lack of Control- with empowerment learning self-advocacy leads to- Acceptance of Continual Change
Hopelessness- with encouragement and a mutually agreed upon treatment plan leads to- Hope
Sadness- with emphasis on living each day to the fullest leads to- Joy

Both survivors and co-survivors experience a wide array of feelings throughout this journey-sadness, anger, guilt, grief and loneliness. Co-Survivors can help deal with these feelings and seek to conquer the four areas listed above by accompanying your loved one to medical visits, talk with the health care providers and asking their loved one to be their guide by letting them tell you what their needs are and in return for you also to express your needs to best support them.
Some co-survivors will experience feelings of guilt for becoming frustrated with caregiving. This can lead to not taking care of themselves which results in Compassion Fatigue. Compassion Fatigue is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion and a profound decrease in the ability to empathize. It is a form of secondary traumatic stress. This stress occurs as a result of helping or wanting to help those who are in need.

Co-Survivors can fall into 2 categories:
Those who act out of pity and sorrow lead to sympathy which can result in ignoring their own needs putting themselves at risk for Compassion Fatigue.

Those who act out of compassion and recognize the importance of caring for themselves as well as caring for others are more driven by empathy which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Although most of us experience sympathy for others in need, when combined with empathy it will ensure that both the survivor and the co-survivors needs are met.

Tips for the co-survivor:

Make time for yourself time off, join a group/talk with a counselor, be nice to yourself

Find meaning during Cancer Journey-look at life in a new way, find purpose/value

Educate yourself about Compassion Fatigue-seek support

Set emotional boundaries

Find outside hobbies

Keep a gratitude journal

Learn resilience

Know we all make mistakes-no one is perfect

Cry or express your feelings-find help with managing family conflicts that may occur

Focus on the things that are worth your time-let small stuff go

Remind yourself that you are doing your best

Spend time alone to think about your own feelings

Ask for support with tasks-you do not always have to be the expert

Allow teens/children to help out-good for them to feel they are contributing

“How well people manage their lives marked by illness depends not on the nature of the illness, but on the strength of their conviction that life is worth living no matter what complications are imposed on it.”

Cheri Register-Living with Chronic Illness: Days of Patience and Passion.